The Color Wheel is precisely the kind of movie I normally hate. Depending on who you ask, it could be termed “mumblecore,” although the meaning of that word seems to differ from person to person. The kind of movie and story in general of which I speak, is oft-repeated by New York artists, a story about uncertain 20-somethings who think that they are special, usually to realize in the end that they actually aren’t; who hate everyone, usually because they really hate themselves; who coat themselves in irony, usually so nothing bad can be said about them because they have already preempted you. In general, the problem with such films is that they utilize that same irony to protect themselves from anything bad. Nothing you say about the characters can say much because the artist has already made that judgment explicit, and nothing critical one says about the work, which usually lacks any visual or cinematic distinction, can amount to much because a similar shield, amplified by a micro-budget production (especially in the case of a film), is erected. This is a tiny film about tiny people, not some ambitious work of art cinema, so it has to be held to a different standard. You wouldn’t tell a struggling artist that his work sucks to his face, would you? The biggest compliments are often times regarding how “clever” (read: ironic) the work is, although usually that cleverness is utterly unproductive for the consumer. I believe David Foster Wallace said something similar about 20 years ago, although the mass proliferation of digital technology (especially the camera) has seemingly magnified it in recent years.
In any case, The Color Wheel positions itself firmly within that landscape, but pushes tropes to revelatory extremes. Awkwardness in the character’s and the film’s self-awareness (made literal by the film’s ultra-grainy texture) actually leads the viewer to conclusions that the characters never reach. Colin (played by Alex Ross Perry, who also directed, edited, and co-wrote) and JR (Carlen Altman, co-writer) are introduced with showcases of their worst traits: he a timid and lethargic nobody who tries to guilt his girlfriend into having sex and floats through life with no particular dreams or aspirations; she is a disrespectful schmoozer who sleeps with her professor hoping to get a job that she constantly tells people is around the corner. They clearly do not get along, but he agrees to help her move her stuff from her professor’s—or rather ex-boyfriend’s—house, so they embark on a road-trip.
Much of what makes The Color Wheel work through this ultra-ironic lensing is the humor. “I hope I gave him the clap,” JR remarks at one point before saying she doesn’t know what it is, but it “sounds itchy.” The two constantly speak over one another, not telling jokes so much as being so honest in their hate and disrespect that the audience—not the characters, as is so often the case—is left with no choice but to laugh. The irony so commonly used as a shield by the film is now used by the viewer. Every so often, a politician or celebrity will say something so offensive, false, and tone-deaf (think Todd Akin’s comments about how pregnancy cannot be caused by “legitimate rape”) that the informed public has to laugh at him, as if the alternative is actually taking it seriously. That’s the effect the characters in The Color Wheel have on us.
This is a small but crucial twist on exactly the kind of people depicted ad nauseum, most effectively in Girls and, so I’ve been told, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. But unlike, say, Noah Baumbach in Frances Ha, Alex Ross Perry feels no need to make his character likable or fun in spite of their flaws. These aren’t the overgrown children who can be fun if you’re in the right mood, the people who need to grow up but you root for them because they are mostly good people, for which they are ultimately rewarded. Unlike Frances, Colin and JR are not overgrown children, they are despicable people. We do not root for them; we dread every minute we have to spend with them. They are not rewarded, and they never realize that they are not special. They go to a party full of people as schmoozy and hateful as themselves and walk away thinking that they are, but when they (and particularly JR) start to put up the generic shield, setting up fantasies for themselves after trashing everyone else, their unearned love of themselves is corrupted and perverted, primarily in a horrifying 10 minute shot, by incest. These people are so blind and desperate yet so in love with themselves, so convinced that they have some kind of God-given superiority that they actually turn toward their own gene pool for romance and intimacy. Anyone else is not good enough for them. It’s a disgusting but wickedly funny and bold indictment of a character trait that is becoming increasingly synonymous with independent film, the privileged white youth of New York City (where Perry has lived since graduating high school), and even in Generation Y in general.
The film’s weaknesses are apparent but highly mitigated, seeming to pop up here and there rather than as a result of conceptual deficiencies. An early scene in a motel lobby lacks the bite and punch that it needs, so the jokes fall flat. Aesthetically, the camera and editing sometimes seem at odds with one another, moving too fast, as if lacking a subject or points of interest, or cutting away from inserts and robbing them of purpose; together, they mar the film’s awkward tension—marked primarily by an abundance of dead-air and loud voices—in a less intentional awkwardness. To excuse these shortcomings entirely on the basis of the film’s low-budget, the relative inexperience of the small crew, etc. would be to grant it the same pardons that the films it indicts so often ask for, but Perry already seems to have an aesthetic viewpoint. The black-and-white, grainy texture of the film gives it a mockingly self-serious tone and creates distance from its subjects. Strange, semi-surreal transitions, including a crucial one regarding the aforementioned incest scene, blur lines between wish-fulfillment and the taboos of reality that lend further insight into the perverse minds of the characters. The ending’s lack of resolution and nod toward an earlier point in the film suggests cyclical, self-defeating experiences yet to come, and more false-revelations around the corner.
Despite its shortcomings, then, proclamations that The Color Wheel is among the most important American independent films in years are not overblown; it is important not because of its quality but because of how it addresses and responds to a particular trend and genre that seems to be growing more pervasive with each passing day—not by pulling away and pretending it doesn’t exist, but by confronting it head-on, pushing it as far as it can go, revealing generic shortcomings in the process.